C’est Vrai: Traffic jam? What traffic jam?
The roads weren’t all paved but neither were they crowded when one of the first ocean-to-ocean highways stretched through south Louisiana.
The details came out in 1926, when state highway officials were planning one of their most ambitious projects ever. They were upgrading the Old Spanish Trail, also known then as Star Route 2, to “modern” standards.
The highway had only recently been given a state highway number. Louisiana highways were known only by names until 1921, when Act 95 of a special session of the legislature established Routes 1 through 98. By 1926 there were 162 defined and numbered routes.
That system gave the lowest numbers to the most important highways. What had been known as the Jefferson Highway, running north from New Orleans, was designated LA 1, and followed essentially the route of today’s LA 1 along the Mississippi River to the vicinity of Baton Rouge, then vertically across the state. The Old Spanish Trail, which was made LA 2, was considered the second most important in the state.
Louisiana highways were renumbered in 1955, based on an A-B-C system of classification: An A road was a major artery and was given one- or two-digit numbers, B routes were secondary roads and given three-digit numbers below 300, and C routes, farm-to-market roads, were given high numbers.
The Old Spanish Trail, which stretched from St. Augustine, Fla., to Los Angeles, entered Louisiana near Slidell and left it at the Sabine River at Orange, Texas. In between, it ran for 350 miles through New Orleans, Houma, Morgan City, Franklin, New Iberia, Lafayette, Crowley, Jennings, Lake Charles, and the smaller towns in-between.
A 1926 report on the status of the highway by the Old Spanish Trail Commission said the 350 miles of road in Louisiana had been built at an average cost of $16,500 per mile and were “all graveled and well maintained.” In addition to paving, the highway needed bridges across the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Ferries crossed from New Orleans to Gretna and from Morgan City to Berwick.
Huey Long’s ambitious road-building project helped to fix some of the problems. When he took office in 1928, Louisiana had roughly 300 miles of paved roads, only 60 miles of which were maintained by the state. By the end of his term in 1932, the state had 5,000 miles of new paved and gravel roads. He started construction on the Huey P. Long Bridge across the Mississippi River at New Orleans in 1932.
But Long’s program was only a political promise — if even that — when Old Spanish Trail planners looked at Louisiana in 1926. Part of their plan was to try to figure out how many cars would travel on the road when it was paved. State highway workers stationed themselves at various places on this important route and counted the traffic.
They estimated that 691 vehicles crossed the Pinhook Bridge, the main river crossing into Lafayette. That wasn’t in one day, or even a week. That was for all of 1926. The count included 44 horse-drawn vehicles.
Improvements didn’t seem to immediately spur a lot more traffic on the state’s second-ranked highway. A count made a mile south of Broussard in 1930 showed 1,290 total vehicles traveling between New Iberia and Lafayette. Some of them were still pulled by horses.
There are still bits and pieces of the Old Spanish Trail in south Louisiana, although much of it was buried beneath the old U.S. 90, which was then supplemented by I-10 from Texas to Lafayette, and the new U.S. 90 from Lafayette to New Orleans. (The OST Club in Duson, named for the Old Spanish Trail, is a reminder that the road once passed through that community.)
If you want to try to follow its approximate route, either on the map or in your car, remember that it essentially followed the railroad, which is pretty much still in the same place that it was when the road was built.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.